Oh gosh, where do I begin?
I guess I should probably start by saying that this blog post is going to be my opinion and my opinion only. I totally respect that other people have different opinions and experiences – but I’d really like to share my feelings and thoughts about this trail hopefully without too much harsh judgment from others. This trail is still very young, so it’s possible that some of what I say today (2018) will likely change over the next decade or two.
Let me start by describing the Te Araroa Trail (TA). The TA is a conglomeration of trails, roads, beach walks, and quite a few “hazard zones,” where the trail simply ends at a river, estuary, or lake and you are expected to figure out how to get yourself to the other side where the trail continues. This can make for some frustrating experiences.
The South Island is more remote, and more of a wilderness experience and the North Island is much more urban with a lot more road walking. However, compared to the few long-distance trails I have hiked in the United States (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail), there is still quite a bit of road walking on the South Island (I’ve gotten laughed at for saying this).
The mountains, especially in the South Island, are extremely rugged and surprisingly wet and or muddy. New Zealand trails tend not to be maintained. I heard one DOC (Department of Conservation – the organization that maintains the trails and huts) employee say that an average track is maintained once every 10 years (this does not go for popular day hikes or Great Walks). Many tracks are not maintained at all. In fact, many tracks don’t really exist in the American sense of the word “trail.” Another DOC employee told us that they often just put in trail markers (or reassurance markers, as he called them), and then let some sort of track form from people walking the route and trampling the plants along the way. This goes against the Leave No Trace Principle “camp and walk on durable surfaces,” which simply does not seem to apply to most of New Zealand tramping, although they do reference the principles often. For the unforgiving terrain, however, you’re spectacularly rewarded with stunning views which seem to be never-ending (again, I’m speaking mostly about the South Island).
In fact, there are several standards of tramping trails in New Zealand: “tramping route” “tramping track”, and “easy tramping track.”. We determined that “easy tramping track” was equivalent to the American use of the word “trail.” “Tramping Track” was a much more rugged, hardly maintained trail, and “tramping route” meant no trail, but marked.
Because tracks are often not planned or maintained, the routes often go straight up and down mountains rather than switch-backing (or zig-zagging as they would say in New Zealand). This makes for extremely steep trails – trails where you risk falling even going uphill! I don’t think I can adequately describe how steep and rugged some of these “trails” are. Meanwhile, New Zealand trampers drag their heavy backpacks through this terrain with remarkable ease (ultralight backpacking gear is hard to find in New Zealand).
Distances are often inaccurate or not even available. I’ve heard hikers report that each section of the trail had an extra km compared to the trail notes. Most of the time, trails are marked in terms of time rather than distance, so you’ll see signs saying “2 hours” instead of “6km”. I found this quite helpful since the trail varied so much in difficulty.
Besides rugged, these trails are WET! I can count on a single hand the number of days my feet were dry for an entire day on the South Island. This was due to streams, rivers, marshes, wet grass and mud. I’m not sure why even in the driest areas, where there were no trees, and farmers were irrigating the grass, the ground under our feet would always find a way to provide us with squishy marshes, mud, or dozens of streams to walk through. Many times the trail actually was a stream or river, and hikers are meant to follow these natural landmarks like trails.
Despite the rugged nature of the trail, the lack of trail maintenance, and its general sogginess, the trail was always easy to follow and well marked. I almost never looked at my compass. All trails in New Zealand are marked with orange arrows or orange poles, and unless it is very foggy, it is usually just a game of finding the next orange marker. The only navigational issues we had were when there were several trails or roads to choose from, and it was not obvious which path was supposed to be the Te Araroa Trail. In this respect, the trail is much less well marked than, say, the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, which have dedicated markers so you don’t wind up on a side trail.
Where the trail is less rugged and also not on a road, it often times goes through farmland, and we often walked through fields of cows or sheep. I grew very fond of sheep, who often would trot away from us in large numbers, but I became a bit more wary of cows. Cows are curious by nature and often don’t budge when they are in your way. There are times when you will be in a field of cows, some of which are massive bulls, with no clear escape route if one decided to charge. Sheep and cows wind up in some of the most remote areas of New Zealand, and I was often surprised to see fencing, a stile, livestock poop or bones deep into mountain ranges. We also saw quite a few dead animals, something that is just part of farm life, I suppose.
Besides farm animals, your favorite animals will become New Zealand’s birds. Because New Zealand originally did not have any mammalian predators, birds flowed into every evolutionary niche, and many lost the ability to fly, such as the kiwi, weka, kakapo, and takahe to name a few. Many birds have little fear, and you will find that birds such as fantails and robins will follow you around, in the hopes that you’ll stir up some bugs along the way. Wekas, which look somewhat like chickens, will try to steal any and all your gear. New Zealand also has no snakes, and only one poisonous spider, which you’ll probably never meet. In other words, you have very little to fear in the mountains… except for the weather.
The weather in New Zealand can rule your life because you often have to ford rivers that become dangerous after heavy rain, and hiking on exposed and rugged ridges can be dangerous in poor weather. We were lucky with the weather for the first half of our trip, after which we started having to play tetris with good weather days. We did have to spend an entire day in a hut waiting out poor weather in the Richmond Ranges, where the trail is particularly rugged and exposed, and we tried to wait for good weather to cover the Tararuas, the Whanganui River, and Tongariro Crossing, with mild success. We had several cyclones hit New Zealand during our hike, and had to wait them out in towns, and then attempt to judge river crossings afterward. Some people skipped sections to avoid fording high rivers rather than wait for water levels to drop.
Because the trail is so young, it is definitely experiencing some growing pains. The number of hikers on this trail seems to just about double every year, at least according to locals. This has placed certain strains on the trail and local communities. Most hikers on the South Island spend their nights in the huts along the trail (you can buy a Hut Pass from the DOC), but the huts vary in size and often don’t have enough space for the number of hikers that show up during peak season. Huts are often built in areas where it made sense to build a hut, but not necessarily in areas where it makes sense to camp. When the huts are full, people are being forced to camp in these areas anyway. This is especially a problem in the Richmond Ranges where the huts are small, most having about 6 bunks, and they are predominantly in exposed areas where you may need to hunker down and wait for bad weather to pass. I read stories in the hut book of 16 people squeezed into one of these small huts, with people sleeping in every corner of the floor.
Speaking of places to camp, there are very few places to camp compared to on trails in the United States. We originally figured we would simply camp and avoid the huts, but we quickly found that the terrain did not allow us to simply search for a camp spot within an hour or so of when we were ready to call it a day. I’ve rarely had this problem in the USA, but our terrain is, for the most part, a whole lot less wet and a whole lot less rugged. Plus, the TA goes through many farms and other private estates where camping is not permitted. This problem was exacerbated in 2017 by the fact that the Guthook App, which many hikers use on their phones as a GPS as well as a means of finding water sources and camp spots, deleted all camping locations listed on the app. Most hikers guessed that this was because illegal camp spots were being entered into the app, and this was simply not acceptable to the DOC or the TA Trust (hikers are encouraged to donate to the TA Trust after their hike, I would also encourage hikers to donate to the DOC – you can donate to one of their conservation programs, you cannot donate directly to DOC).
There are places that you can camp in towns, called Holiday Parks, and many times we forked out $30-40NZ just to camp in town (they charge per person, not per tent) with showers costing an additional $2 and laundry another $6-8. This was often the cheapest option for staying in town, the next cheapest being hostels where you would share a bunk room with 4-12 people. What surprised me the most was how packed some of the tourist towns were, and how hard it was to find accommodation on the fly. It was so bad that sometimes we tried to reserve something in advance, forcing us to stick to a strict schedule to make it in time for our reservation.
After a bit of research, John and I decided to hike the TA northbound. Our decision to go northbound was based on a few factors: first of all, we wanted to be home for Christmas. Second, we didn’t want to be in a “bubble” of hikers. Third, we wanted to hike the more scenic, more wild portion of the trail first in case of injury, or other hike-ending situations. I also later found out that Northland in spring is by far the muddiest season, whereas going northbound we would hit it in fall, which is much more pleasant. So, we started mid-January at Bluff.
It’s fair to say that going southbound would guarantee a trail community to hike with. Since we went northbound, didn’t meet many more than a dozen northbounders total during our hike, and for the first half of the South Island, we didn’t hike with anyone else. It was a bit lonely without other hikers. Of course, we met many southbounders, but only in passing, and we had no shared experiences.
Within the first couple of weeks on trail, I couldn’t help but notice the demographics of people hiking the trail. The vast majority of hikers were from Europe – but only the rich European countries were represented. There were also a fair number of Americans: from the USA or Canada. There were a handful of Kiwis (New Zealanders), but surprisingly few. Most hikers were young, but of working age (20’s and 30’s). The fact that the vast majority of these hikers came from the richest countries in the world really left me feeling over-privileged and… guilty. The feeling would stick with me the entire trail and would shape some of my judgments.
From the beginning, we decided we would not be doing a “purist” thru-hike of the entire trail (purist means hiking every mile from start to end). I sort of thought we wouldn’t give up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island, however, and on day 1 we were already faced with a 30km road walk on Route 1 (the main highway running the length of both islands). So, our hike started with this road walk from Bluff to Invercargill on the hottest day ever recorded there. It would take us another 400-500km before we gave up on the notion of a purist thru-hike of the South Island.
It’s no surprise that purists are in the vast minority on this trail. It’s just too bad that some of them are very vocal and judgmental, especially online. But, I’m sure they also often feel judged by the non-purists for doing pointless road walks. I’ve heard more than one purist hiker being jealous of non-purists because a non-purist hike seemed so much more enjoyable. I also noticed that most of the jaded, more negative online reviews or summaries of the TA came from purists, and I don’t blame them. I am a big fan of the phrase “hike your own hike,” which is a hiker saying that attempts to keep people from judging or passing judgment on other hikers. If your plan is to do a purist hike, that’s fine, and if your plan is to hit the highlights only, that’s fine too. I think going into the hike, it helps to set your rules in advance, ask yourself what you want to get out of this adventure and be willing to be flexible.
Before we started skipping any parts of the TA, however, we started adding tracks which we didn’t want to miss even though they weren’t on the TA. We wanted to treat this trip like our one chance to visit New Zealand just in case we never had a chance to come back. Our first added track was the Greenstone Track which connected us to the Routeburn Track (a Great Walk). We carefully connected these to the TA before the Lake Wakatipu hazard zone near Queenstown, which most people hitchhike or shuttle around.
The biggest reason why we gave up on a purist thru-hike of the South Island was because of my physical ailments. I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct hip dysplasia, and I also have a frozen shoulder, and I have found that I have a lot of pain walking on easy (flat) terrain. Thus, the first section we skipped was the cycle path from Lake Ohau to Lake Tekapo, a boring ~75km walk along a flat cycle path with nowhere to camp. Some people choose to expensively rent a bike for this section, but we heard horror stories of people having to walk their bikes because of strong crosswinds.
Instead of doing the cycle path, we decided to take a quick side trip to Mount Cook, which remains one of the highlights of our trip. We day-hiked up to Mueller Hut and saw keas (alpine parrots) along the way.
The next hazard zone for us was the Rangitata River. This is a large braided river, and it is not advisable to ford it, as it takes many hours. In that amount of time, the river could easily rise from rain upstream, which you may be completely unaware of, before you can safely make it across. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the south side of the river, there was no way for us to get out of there, and we had almost run out of food. This is THE middle of nowhere, and the small parking lot and gravel road here sees maybe one car a day, if that. We weren’t about to be able to hitchhike out of there. As we approached the river, we met two southbounders who had just forded, and so we entered the river only knowing that it was possible to ford an hour earlier. It took us 3 hours to ford the river (it is about 5km across). I stand behind the Te Araroa Trust in keeping this a hazard zone. If I had the choice, I would not have forded. It was stressful, obviously could be hazardous, and we almost definitely picked a poor route (and I wouldn’t know- just looking at a map- how to pick a better one).
The next hazard zone, the Rakaia River, is only 70km further along, and after spending 7 hours successfully hitchhiking out from the northern end of the Rangitata (which sees maybe 1 car an hour), I wasn’t about to go through that again with another, much more dangerous river for only 2 days worth of hiking. I didn’t want to skip this section, but we did for logistical reasons.
Hitchhiking in New Zealand works well, but only where there are people. The population of New Zealand is less than 5 million, and most of them live in the North Island, so there are some parts of the South Island where you may be waiting a long time. On the South Island, most of the people who picked us up were tourists, whereas, on the North Island, we met many more locals.
We hiked most of the rest of the South Island, only skipping a few small road-walks here or there when convenient.
After we gave up on our purist hike, each time other hikers or locals asked us if we were hiking the whole TA we would say “that’s the plan, except for the roads.” The reactions of locals really surprised me:
“Life is too short to walk on roads.”
“You didn’t travel all the way to New Zealand to walk on a road!”
“There are so many better things to do here than walk on our crappy roads.”
“Don’t let people tell you that you aren’t walking the whole thing if you’re skipping roads.”
“The people that walk the roads are people that just want to be able to tick a box.”
It seemed that Kiwis were far less goal-oriented than the average American. After giving it some further thought, what struck me about the idea of a purist hike of the TA is that the only box you can tick is that you’ve hiked the whole TA. You can’t claim to have continuous footsteps for the length of New Zealand, in fact, you can’t even claim to have walked the length of New Zealand because of the hazard zones. You would need to walk many, many days of extra roads in order to be able to get around the lakes and rivers that are labeled as hazard zones (Note: we did meet someone doing this.)
Kiwis, along with their nonchalant attitude, are complete badasses. The average New Zealand tramper is like a cat: they have nine lives, and always land on their feet. I think this has something to do with the terrain in New Zealand. If you grow up walking in these mountains, you can’t help but become used to them. Once I finished the South Island, it didn’t surprise me that the first person to climb Mount Everest was a Kiwi, despite the tiny population of New Zealand.
Kiwis are also some of the kindest people I’ve encountered. It is not uncommon for someone to come up to you in a grocery store or on the street and strike up a conversation about your trip and welcome you to New Zealand. They’re always helpful and unusually kind. Kiwis will restore your faith in humanity. Only one thing: They’re crazy drivers. But you could also blame the crazy roads.
Even though the locals are kind and generous, I think that local trampers use TA hikers as scapegoats for all sorts of problems, some of which are somewhat warranted: overcrowded huts, freeloading, littering, etc. As I mentioned before, most TA hikers are not Kiwis, so I think locals see parts of their backcountry as being taken over by unprepared tourists
Due to the fact that the South Island, in general, offers more tantalizing hiking opportunities, many hikers opt to hike the South Island only. I don’t think this is an unreasonable move because most of the South Island is fantastic. But, if I had limited time, I think I would probably skip small pieces of the South Island (road walks, and the cycle path), and still hit some of the highlights of the North Island. Although I did not hike much of the North Island, I do think I hit many of the highlights, so maybe it’s appropriate for me to list what I think are the highlights (also, when I spoke to other thru-hikers, they mostly only spoke fondly about these sections).
Highlights of the North Island:
The Tararuas: This is the one very rugged mountainous section of the North Island. Many Southbounders told me this was their favorite section of the North Island
The Whanganui River: This is a section of the trail which should be canoed rather than hiked. The canoe trip is a “Great Journey” (like a Great Walk, but rather a canoe trip), and I recommend doing the typical 5-day canoe trip advertised by all the canoe rental companies. This is actually not the exact section of the river that the TA follows on the Whanganui, but if you’re not married to the TA, then this is the best section to do. The TA continues south through part of the river that just goes through boring farmland and is affected by tidal flow, meaning you may have to paddle hard or take a break when the tide is against you. If you’re short on time, the 3-day trip (Whakahoro to Pipiriki) is the best part of the 5-day trip.
The Tongariro Crossing: This is also a Great Walk, and you can either do just the day hike (roughly 20km), or you can make it longer and do “Around the Mountain,” which many TA hikers recommended to us (huts here are first come first serve), or the “Northern Circuit”, which is logistically a bit more challenging because it is part of the Great Walk, and you must reserve the huts far in advance.
Northland: Much of the trail north of Auckland seems worth doing. There is still a fair amount of road walking, and some of this can be hitchhiked, but there are many stunning coastal walks, and forest sections which are worth your time. Also, there is 90-mile beach, which some hikers seem to hate (I think this is because they are Southbounders, and this is the first thing they hit). There are also a fair amount of estuary crossings which can be frustrating because you have to pay close attention to tides or find ways around them. Still, it’s a stunning part of the country, and since kiwis (both the people and the birds!) actually live here, you’re likely to experience some of New Zealand’s famous hospitality.
The TA is worth hiking, at least in parts. In fact, I think some of the sections of this long distance trail will remain my favorite hiking experiences of all time. But, the trail is still young and evolving. I don’t think that it will ever be like the long distance trails of the United States in terms of road-walking (or they would need to really reroute the trail drastically), but I think it has a lot of character the way it is. Maybe they will start a permit system to manage the increase in numbers, or maybe they will suggest alternative routes so people can spread out somewhat. Who knows. I do know that a lot more people are going to go to New Zealand because of the TA, and so you’ll hear a lot more about the pros and cons of the trail from other hikers. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I hope that some people who come to hike the TA will also decide to take the time to see some of the sights that are just a quick side trip away.
Thanks for following, and I hope this final blog piece will be helpful to some of you contemplating this adventure. I’m also happy to take any questions!